President Obama calls again for tech help to spot terrorist messages

But he says no government can read every text, email

Obama in white house speech
Credit: Reuters/Pool

On Friday, President Obama repeated the need to bring high-tech leaders together with law enforcement and intelligence officials to better spot terrorist threats on the Internet.

But he also discussed the obstacles in doing so, in an era of encrypted smartphone apps and private social networking chats.

Some intelligence officials are worried that terrorists are relying on encryption to hide their schemes. At the same time, many high-tech leaders worry that breaking encryption will erode personal privacy.

"We have to review what we can do both technically, as well as consistent with our laws and values to try to discern more rapidly some of the potential threats that may be out there," Obama said in his final news conference of the year.

However, Obama also expressed concerns about protecting personal privacy in Internet communications and the difficulty of intercepting private communications.

"We'll be engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, to do a better job -- if we have a lead -- to be able to track a suspected terrorist," Obama said.

"But we're going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person's texts, or emails or social media," he added. "If it's not posted publicly, then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level. And it raises questions about our values."

Regarding values, Obama quickly referred to the public debate over privacy that arose after NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents about government surveillance of phone records of U.S citizens.

"Keep in mind, it was only a couple of years ago that we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like a Big Brother," he said. "Overall, we have struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that U.S. citizens' privacy is preserved, making sure there's oversight to what intelligence agencies do...

"But we are going to have to continue to balance our needs for security with people's legitimate concerns about privacy because the Internet is global and communications systems are global."

Obama's remarks seemed to soften what he said on Dec. 6 in remarks from the oval office. At that point he said he would urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders "to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape justice."

High-tech leaders have worried that finding methods to break encryption will allow criminals to invade the personal communications and data of ordinary smartphone users who want to protect their personal health, financial and other data.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an interview with CBS This Morning that it isn't possible to present encrypted data to a judge with a warrant because the decryption key resides on a user's iPhone. "A back door is for everybody -- good and bad," Cook said.

This story, "President Obama calls again for tech help to spot terrorist messages" was originally published by Computerworld.

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